Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Emmy™Award-Winning Documentary Film

"Broadcast" version now airing on most public television stations.

"Uncensored" version now on DVD and in film festivals.

Synopsis: A charismatic figure featured in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, Florence "Pancho" Barnes was one of the most important women in 20th Century aviation. A tough and fearless aviatrix, Pancho was a rival of Amelia Earhart's who made a name for herself as Hollywood's first female stunt pilot. Just before WWII she opened a ranch near Edwards Air Force Base that became a famous -- some would say notorious -- hangout for test pilots and movie stars. Known as the "Happy Bottom Riding Club", it became the epicenter of the aviation world during the early jet age. Chuck Yeager celebrated breaking the sound barrier there in 1947, and Howard Hughes and Jimmy Doolittle caroused in the bar. The Club's destruction by fire in 1953 is seen by many to mark the end of a Golden Era in post-WWII aviation. In the same fashion Pancho herself has become something of a legend, a fascinating yet enigmatic icon whose swagger is often celebrated, but whose story has been largely unknown. Until now.

A documentary film produced and written by Nick Spark and directed by Amanda Pope. Featuring interviews with test pilots Bob Cardenas, Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and biographers Barbara Schultz and Lauren Kessler. Narrated by Tom Skerritt with Kathy Bates as the voice of Pancho Barnes.

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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"
04 November 2007

Muroc is Corum Spelled Backwards ...

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It's hard to believe that a mere six decades ago, Edwards Air Force Base barely existed. But like so many things in the West that seem to have sprouted up out of the dust, there it is. In the 1940's it certainly didn't seem like much. The Army Air Force used the dry lakes near the town of Muroc for a bombing practice range, and stationed men up there to build, and retrieve, concrete bombs. The men lived in absolutely primitive conditions, in tents, and braved the blazing sun during the day and the freezing cold that night on the desert can bring.

Photo: Army tents on the Rogers dry lake in the late 1930's...and pardon my spelling of courtesy!

In short, it wasn't a place you'd want to be posted. It was a backwards place... Perhaps it is appropriate then, to mention that it was actually named backwards as well! You see, the original family who started the homestead that became the town, were the Corums. Problem was, there already was a U.S. Post Office with the name of Corum, in Illinois. Rather than make a fuss, Corum, California became Muroc. So you see, a backwards name for a backwards place!

The exact reason that Pancho ended up moving out to the desert, near where the AAF was doing its bombing, is something of a mystery. David Chisholm, who was one of the key people behind the fictionalized version of Pancho's life (see April 25th journal entry), told me he felt it was the biggest mystery of her life. Why would Pancho walk away from her career as an aviatrix in Los Angeles, and move to such a god-forsaken spot?

The answer that has emerged, is that she had to. Although she inherited around $6 million dollars in today's money in the mid-1920's, Pancho truly was broke by the mid-1930's. The Great Depression, a squabble with her relatives over her inheritance, along with her profligate spending on airplanes and assistance for her friends, proved her undoing. (Jimmy Doolittle recounted that Pancho turned her home into a pilot's hostel during the Depression — a move that couldn't have been cheap!) She had to leave Los Angeles because she couldn't afford to stay there.

The interesting thing is, that Pancho planned her escape to the desolate Mojave. Back in 1929, while preparing to set an endurance record with the Lockheed Vega, Pancho performed flights around Muroc. At that time, she spotted a beautiful alfalfa farm which she described as "luscious". She added that in her mind, the moment she saw it, "I made my mind up. One day, I'd like to get ahold of that ranch." She traded her last unencumbered possession in L.A., an apartment building, for the property.

For Pancho, the Mojave proved a great escape — a place to rebuild her life and her bank account, raise her son Billy, and start all over again. For the soldiers who lived out there, however, it was a living hell. The fact that they hated it, is well-documented in a marvelous booklet entitled "The Battle of Muroc". This tiny tome consists of maybe twenty cartoons, written by a fellow named John McAtee. Doubtless, Mr. McAtee was one of those fellows who felt he'd been sent, not to an air base in California, but to Siberia.

I had heard about this booklet — it's sort of a legend in its own right — and believe it or not managed to find an original copy for sale on the internet for cheap. The cover, shown above, shows a poor sun-baked fellow showing obvious signs of brain-rot, mumbling "I have been here too long".

One gets the sense, flipping through the acid-paper pages, that it came about simply as a result of a severe case of "gallows humor". Consider the situation: you are a young man, say 18 years old, stuck out in the middle of the desert. There's no bars, no bowling alleys, and no swimming pools. The heat is oppressive, and a bath or even fresh laundry is a luxury. Women? Forget it! And if you even manage to get a three-day pass, you're going to spend most of that time just trying to get to civilization. Keep in mind, Los Angeles may be a short hop by car nowadays, but in the 40's it was all dirt roads and no highways!

As you can imagine, no one in their right mind would want to be posted out at Muroc. Apparently, people did everything they could to avoid it, and postings out to the base could be considered, shall we say, punitive?

Chuck Yeager, when we asked him to describe the Muroc he saw, when he arrived there in the mid-1940's, didn't mince words. "The base was really pretty sorry," he recounted. "Unfortunately, the people that were sent to Muroc, and were stationed at Muroc, were the dregs of the Air Force. They were really, from the commander on down, just about as sorry a bunch of people as you can get. You couldn't get the time of day out of these people."

Image above from Battle of Muroc: The caption is a bit hard to read, but this one says, 'Unhappy People." Image below, some of the pioneers pose in front of a building marked 'Radio Maintenance'. Judging from the outfits, it must be mid-winter.

Of course, the situation did not remain as dire as all that, for long. Once WWII got into full swing, Muroc became an important facility for testing aircraft, and all sorts of talented people converged on the Rogers Dry Lake. Before long the base facilities improved quite a bit, although there were still a lot of primitive aspects to the place. For instance, the barracks got the label, "Desert Rat Motel" for reasons one can only speculate about. There was very little fresh food save the occasional jackrabbit, and the base recreational facilities consisted of maybe a volleyball net. As the old saying goes, when you live in the desert, "plenty of beach and no ocean..."

This is where, of course, Pancho came in. After losing her inherited fortune in L.A., she managed to make a new one, and a lot of it in government dollars. She bought a dairy, and supplied milk to the base. She raised hogs, feeding them trash she hauled from the base, and then sold pork cutlets to the Army. And...she provided what the poor fellows at Muroc really needed...some entertainment. "Back in those days," remembers pilot Bob Hoover, "You had an officer's club and you could go in there, and it would be completely empty. And, you had to go eat someplace else, because they didn't have any place to eat back then. In (the town of Muroc), there was just a couple of stores and a service station. And then," he says, a smile growing across his face,"...there was Pancho's. That was the watering hole for all of the test pilots and many of the support people. It was a very popular place."

One of the reasons Pancho's "Rancho Oro Verde" was so popular, is addressed by my favorite cartoon in McAttee's "The Battle of Muroc" (at right). You see, even after they added some facilities to the base, there weren't many women to be found. Every now and then, during WWII, they'd bus some gals up from Los Angeles to dance with the Army boys, but that was about it. Of course, Pancho knew that having nice looking girls as waitresses would be good for business... Or, as she put it, they were the "honey to get the fly-boys" ! Which, funny enough, is sort of the exact opposite of this cartoon's gag!

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